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    Eco-Certification for Tourism: The Role of Blue Flag, Part I

    By Keith R | October 13, 2006

    Topics: Environmental Protection, Marine/Coastal Issues, Sanitation, Sustainable Tourism, Waste & Recycling, Water Issues | 4 Comments »

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    In my friend Jaime's essay on realizing sustainable tourism, he said:

    It is necessary to change, tighten and to enforce the parameters of environmental requirements. In addition to sanctions, the creation of an environmental movement should be encouraged, in association with private international organizations like Green Globe or Blue Flag that conduct independent audits and establish regional classifications, categories and awards for hotels that comply with the norms.

    In an earlier Temas blog entry, I examined the Green Globe 21 program that is eco-certifying hotels in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and can certify many other tourism-related activities as well. 


    In this four-part series, I'll examine the growing presence of Blue Flag in LAC nations.  Part I will look at Blue Flag's beach criteria and process.  Part II will examine the marine criteria and process.  Part III will look at what LAC beaches and marinas have already won Blue Flag certification, the impact this has had, and which beaches and marinas are currently in the process of seeking the Blue Flag. 


    The final part will compare and contrast this program with Costa Rica's confusingly similar Bandera Azul program (created 11 years after Blue Flag began in Europe), which Costa Rica recently agreed to help bring to Panama.


    If any reader is aware of other eco-certification programs starting or underway in the LAC tourism sector, please let me know at and I'll take a look them as well.


    What is the Blue Flag?

    The Blue Flag campaign originated in France in 1985 as an attempt to use a voluntary eco-certification program to get beaches to comply with the European Union's (EU) Bathing Water Directive.  It spread to other EU member nations in 1987.

    The program succeeded in its original goal and then some.  Over the years the program has evolved to address more issues than just the water quality at beaches, a second eco-certification program was launched for marinas, and in 2001 the program spread beyond the confines of the EU to now cover over 3,100 sites in some 36 countries. 

    In LAC, these include the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, and programs are in the advanced pilot phase in Brazil and Chile (in September 2006 10 beaches in Brazil and one in Chile were given Blue Flag certificates), and early pilot phase in Barbados and the Turks and Caicos.  In addition, Argentina and Ecuador have inquired about starting programs in those countries.

    FEE logo Overall coordination of the program is handled by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) based on Copenhagen, Denmark.  Until recently the program's implementation in the Caribbean was overseen by "the Caribbean Blue Flag Consortium" created in September 2002 by the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), the Puerto Rico-based Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism (CAST -I'll examine CAST in a future Temas blog) and the Barbados-based Caribbean Conservation Association (CCA).  In 2006 it was decided to devolve responsibility to national organizations communicating directly with FEE.

    Usually before a beach can apply for Blue Flag certification, a country must first have a local FEE member to serve as national coordinator.  Among other criteria they must meet before being accepted by FEE, the local organization must have environmental education as one of their main goals and must demonstrate that they have the resources to run a Blue Flag program. 

    Furthermore, they must show how they plan to run their first Blue Flag campaign.  They also must present a plan on how, within three years of becoming a FEE associate, they will launch their second Blue Flag campaign – in others words, FEE must be satisfied that the local affiliate will not simply sit on its laurels once it has achieved the first success.

    In LAC the current coordinators are:

    It should be noted, however, that all Blue Flag participating countries are expected to hand over coordination to non-profit NGOs and out of the hands of official agencies (such as the Ministry of Tourism). 

    What Does It Take for a Beach to Get the Right to Fly the Blue Flag?

    Once there is a national FEE affiliate, a workshop must be held in the candidate country to informed possible stakeholders about the program, its rules, procedures and benefits.  A Steering Committee is created containing, at a minimum, representatives from the national water, tourism, education and environmental authorities, as well as other relevant experts and groups (such as the local tourism industry association, a local beach association, etc.).  This Committee examines the international criteria and how they mesh with the local legislation and situation. 

    Typical Blue flag JuriesThereafter the Steering Committee chooses the pilot site for a Blue Flag program.  The choice of pilot site is very important — not only because you want one that has an excellent chance of passing and maintaining accreditation, but also because the first site will serve as a model and learning experience and probable training center for subsequent sites. 

    Each beach interested in gaining Blue Flag status must file an application through the national FEE affiliate.  The application is then reviewed by a National Jury that meets at least once a year to review candidates.  If the National Jury approves an application, it is sent on to a separate International Jury for review during one of its semiannual meetings.  If the latter signs off on the application, the beach is given conditional Blue Flag status for one season.

    Once a site has passed a full season demonstrating compliance with the Blue Flag criteria, it can apply for full Blue Flag status.

    On What Basis Are Beaches Judged?

    During a beach's bathing season, “control visits” are made by national and international auditors to check on compliance with Blue Flag criteria.  If a problem is found, the Blue Flag is removed until it is fixed. 

    If the problem is serious enough, or is not fixed within the time set by the auditors, the flag is withdrawn from that beach for the rest of the season.  FEE also reserves the right to refuse or withdraw the Blue Flag from any beach where the beach operator or local authorities are responsible for current violations of national environmental regulations.

    Members of the public are encouraged to report any problems or violations they note to national and/or international contacts.

    There are three kinds of criteria — "imperative" (mandatory) for all Blue Flag beaches, "guideline" (voluntary, but strongly recommended) and those applicable only to certain regions (such as the Caribbean).

    Blue Flag's Water Quality Criteria Applicable to the CaribbeanMandatory for All Blue Flag Beaches

    • Information relating to coastal zone ecosystems and natural, sensitive areas in the coastal zone must be displayed
    • Information about bathing water quality must be displayed
    • Information about the Blue Flag Campaign must be displayed
    • Code of conduct for the beach area must be displayed and the laws governing beach use must be easily available to the public upon request
    • A minimum of 5 environmental education activities must be offered
    • Compliance with standards for excellent bathing water quality
    • No industrial or sewage related discharges may affect the beach area
    • Algae or other vegetation should be left to decay on the beach unless it constitutes a nuisance
    • The beach must comply with all regulations affecting the location and operation of the beach (coastal zone planning and environmental legislation)
    • The beach must be clean
    • Waste disposal bins/receptacles must be available on/by the beach in adequate numbers, regularly maintained and emptied
    • Sanitary facilities should be clean and have controlled sewage disposal
    • No unauthorized camping or driving on the beach and no dumping
    • A minimum of one Blue Flag beach in each municipality must have access and sanitary facilities for disabled persons
    • Map of the beach indicating different facilities must be displayed
    • Regulations concerning domestic animals on the beach must be strictly enforced
    Mandatory for the Caribbean Blue Flag beaches:

    "Guideline Criteria" for Caribbean Blue Flag beaches:

    Why Should Beaches Seek the Blue Flag?

    There are a number of benefits for a beach community seeking certification under the Blue Flag program:

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    4 Responses to “Eco-Certification for Tourism: The Role of Blue Flag, Part I”

    1. Frederic de Hemptinne Says:

      As a first reaction, I would like to stress the need of making a clear description between legal requirements and voluntary certication schemes. At EU level, there is a Directive on the quality of bathing water, which has been recently updated. Compliance is, of course mandatory and that’s it.
      On the other hand, there is no EU certification scheme for costal tourim. It seems to me that this is more an issue for national or even regional autorities. Of couse, some kind of internation guidance is needed to avoid any confusion on what the certification means, especially if tourism come from other continent. Should it integrated in of Tourism labelling procedure or should it be covered by internal environmental management scheme (i.e. ISO TC 224) or should the Carabian states set up their own label in association with green NGOs.

    2. Keith R Says:

      Frederic, thanks for your comments. I have to disagree, though, on several points.

      Yes, the EU has a Bathing Water Directive since 1976, and compliance was supposedly mandatory, but it was not fully implemented in national law and was widely ignored and violated for many, many years — hence numerous Commission legal action against member states on this issue. One of the reasons Blue Flag the voluntary certification effort was set up in Europe was to apply public pressure to get coastline waters cleaned up and made safe for beachgoers. It helps get local jurisdictions to clean up their coastlines and water if their tourism suffers by comparison to beaches independently certified as cleaner and safer.

      National and regional certification may work in Europe (although I have my reservations about some European nations doing a serious, objective job of it), it probably will not work well in Latin America & the Caribbean (LAC), which, after all, is the subject of my blog. There already are some national schemes, such as Costa Rica’s Bandera Azul, but their criteria are not nearly as stringent as Blue Flag’s and one of the weak spots is regarding water quality and disclosure thereof.

      As for a regional scheme specific to LAC, do you really believe that will be as attractive to potential tourists as an internationally recognized and respected, established brand like Blue Flag? Stepping outside your industry role for a moment and thinking like an ordinary European tourist, whose certification of beach cleanliness and safety would you trust more, Blue Flag or some LAC certification you’ve never heard of?

      I seriously doubt that the ISO internal management schemes would not apply well to a beach or coastal situation, where you have multiple actors. These do not guarantee collective results in areas like bathing water quality like a Blue Flag certification and auditing process does.

      I like Blue Flag for places like LAC nations because it forces many diverse actors — national government, municipal government, tourism industry and local stakeholders — to work together (sometimes for the first time) in the name of attracting more tourism income while helping the environment. In some places it took the incentive of working toward Blue Flag certification before serious efforts were made at dealing with raw municipal wastewater discharges into the ocean, for example.


    3. Frederic de Hemptinne Says:

      There might be a misunderstanding. The EU bathing water directive has been transposed in the legislation of every Member State. However, it happens in some areas that a bathing water does not comply with the standards. Then the member States has to ban bathing in this area (indicating a red flag) but it does not automatically mean that it is in breach with the EU bating water directive.

      In my views, the blue flag is just an information system to the public. It is not a certication system which would have an wider scope (biodiversity, waste, etc.) and that is supposed to be driven by a more ambitious objective than just compliance.

    4. Keith R Says:

      From the Third Annual Survey on the implementation and enforcement of Community environmental law (January 2000 to December 2001) [SEC (2002) 1041]:
      “France, the United Kingdom and Sweden were condemned by the European Court of Justice in the context of the Bathing Water Directive in 2001.”

      and from the EU Commission’s page on proceedings involving the Bathing Water Directive:
      Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 61981J0030
      Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 61981J0072
      Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 61981J0096
      A03 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 61990J0056
      A04 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 61996J0092
      A04P1 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 61997J0198
      A06P1 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 61997J0198
      A03 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 62000J0147
      A04 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 62000J0147
      A05 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 62000J0147
      A06 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 62000J0147
      A04P1 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 62000J0268
      A06P1 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 62000J0268
      A04P1 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 62000J0368
      A06P1 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 62000J0368
      A03 Proceedings concerning failure by Member States 62000J0427

      Although all of the nine original member states were to transpose the directive by 12 Oct. 1977, at least three did not: Belgium (1984), France (1978), Netherlands (1981). Furthermore, the Commission spent several years in legal scuffles with member states regarding proper transposition and implementation, in many cases involving proper reporting on the conditions of the waters.

      Blue Flag does ensure compliance with their water quality standards, in the sense that if the regular testing and/or audits find repeat deviations, the beach in question loses the right to fly the flag. Also, all test results must be publicly available, usually posted at the information center for the beach also required under Blue Flag.

      In Europe, perhaps none of this is necessary because of EU and member state legislation. But in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), some nations do not have legislation akin to the EU’s in place, and even those that do, do not have regular government testing and enforcement (testing is not routinely done by the Environment & Health Ministries in the Dominican Republic, for example, but it is done by private testers at the Bayahibe beach flying the Blue Flag). I think in such places a program like Blue Flag can use the regular testing and public disclosure, and the resort’s desire to fly that flag, as incentives to clean up the water and keep it clean. Certainly does not hurt!

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